A “Living” Wage or a “Devolving” Society

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2A society in which large numbers of people who work a full-time job cannot earn a “living wage” (i.e., provide themselves and their families with life’s basic necessities without governmental or charitable aid) is a  “devolving” society. Hyperbolic? I don’t think so.

Devolution is degeneration that is often characterized by the splitting apart of a whole into lesser piece parts.  For example. we might speak of the once great Roman Empire devolving into a group of fractious principalities or of a nation, like our own, devolving into a state of bitter infighting in which no one can ever seem to agree on anything or act in concert.  Scanning the current political landscape for rifts, intractable chasms of disagreement and situations in which what is good for one group is characterized as life threatening to another the signs of national devolution are everywhere.  Nothing hyperbolic in that, although caught as we are in a period of devolution, I am sure there are many who will want to violently disagree.

Social divisions do not necessarily have to end in devolution.  Differences and divisions per se are not the culprits. Difference, division and debate are essential for the growth and development of  individuals, communities, nations and humankind globally.  Rather, it is the degree and character of these differences/divisions that lead either to positive or negative outcomes.

In this essay, I want to point to two areas that can easily lead to social devolution:

  1. Intellectual/Ideological Absolutism, and
  2. Economic/Opportunity Disparity.

Intellectual/Ideological Absolutism

Intellectual/Ideological absolutism is the idea that one’s own view or set of ideas is absolutely correct and that any other view is absolutely wrong.  Absolutism tends to put a damper on meaningful debate because both parties to the debate assume that the other has nothing to say that could possibly be correct.  This lack of conversation may not matter much if the topic under consideration is itself insignificant.  The parties simply agree to disagree and go on with their lives.

However, in those circumstance when one absolutist regards the other absolutist’s views not only as incorrect but life threatening or dangerous in some other way, the parties cannot and therefore do not agree to disagree but engage in combat that divides the parties further usually reifying the absolutist positions.  Where the power is more or less equal this situation leads to a stalemate at best and out- and-out warfare at worst.  Actually, it really only takes one absolutist to tango in the sense that  only one party needs to be completely closed to the possibility there being anything of merit in the other’s view for the situation to degenerate into one in which the absolutist and non-absolutist absolutely cannot deal with one another. Devolution, in one form or another, is sure to follow and grow.

Economic/Opportunity Disparity

Growth in economic/opportunity disparity is a kind of devolution in action.  For example, the lives of those who currently need to work 80-100 hours in a week (have two full-time jobs) just to approach, not even obtain, a “living wage” are nothing like those of  the wealthiest in society or even those who have modestly comfortable existences with well paying jobs.  The more the gaps widen between  various income groups and the more the percentage distribution of wealth in a country is skewed to a wealthy minority the more divided or devolved the society becomes.

The inability to earn a “living wage” in a normal or extra-normal work week is a key driving factor for societal devolution.  Two-parent and single-parent families where the parents have to be out of the home working just to earn enough to eat suffer–often in a way that leads to the devolution of the family itself as a social unit.  Malnutrition, neglect and consequent lawlessness etc.result from the renting of the social fabric in this way.  Better off people begin to look down on the poor and assail their character rather than address the social conditions which have had such disastrous effects. Devolution deepens and social fragmentation accelerates.  I have even heard some of my conservative colleagues says things like this of the poor, “I am no longer willing to give a crap about anyone who chooses to be a tick on the back of our nation. I used to pity them now I despise them.”

For their part the wealthiest bemoan the disintegration of society while seeking to maximize return on investment even as that drive to maximize return ensures that the lowest wage earners will be denied the the level of wage that might help ensure a “living” rather than devolving society.

In his State of the Union Address, the President called for an increase in the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00/hr.  Making that change would go some way toward minimizing the inequality gap in this country without dramatically impacting small business people.  Any move toward closing the income disparity gap is a move toward stopping the current head long rush to social devolution that we are currently experiencing.  $9.00/hr won’t fix the problem but it will go a long way to helping those most disadvantaged in our society.

Without most of the population being able to earn a “living wage” social devolution is an inevitability that this or any nation can ill afford if it wants to consider itself in any sense UNITED.

 For a data-based and very sound analysis of the history of wages and the need for a minimum wage increase  by Brian Lynch:  Click here. 

John Locke: Natural and Social Liberty


The English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1623-1704) is sometimes called the father of liberty.  His thinking about freedom and liberty, along with that of Rousseau, influenced America’s founders and the authors of its seminal documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. In the course of our modern debates about the role of government in society, Locke is alternately portrayed as championing both the conservative and liberal side of the debate.  Liberty and human freedom itself are important to all sides of the debate and it is not surprising to see both sides return to the roots of the Western notion of liberty to bolster their opposing views.

John Locke

John Locke 1623-1704

One of the reasons that Locke is useful to both sides of this debate is that he, like many other Enlightenment philosophers, seemed to see human beings as existing in two states: the pure natural state and as members of a society.  In the Second Treatise on Government Locke distinguished “the natural liberty of man” from “the liberty of man in society.” (Chapter 4,Sec. 22)

He argued that “the natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.” Since human beings, as Locke well knew, do not live singly in nature but rather are always members of a more or less developed society, his observation is a theoretical one which helps him to establish the importance of liberty as an inherent quality of human beings and therefore in need of preservation in the actual societal situations in which human beings live. He is arguing against those who characterized human beings as being naturally part of divinely created social hierarchy in which liberty was not distributed equally–the sort of argument that would be made by divine right monarchists and princes of the Church.  In this way, he is firmly linking liberty with equality.  This key philosophical insight is echoed later in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and that among this are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence)  What was a real “sea change” in thought in the writing of Locke took less that a century to become “self-evident.”

Locke thought that human society should only have constraints on liberty that allowed all members of society to exercise their liberty in a manner that allowed all other members of society to exercise their liberty and pursue their ends.  For him liberty in society did not permit “… every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws… .” (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 4, Sec. 22)

Locke further argued that the “freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man… .” (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 4, Sec 22) The power to make social regulations was  vested in a legislature whose powers arose from the governed and did not descend from a monarch or even God. The power to legislate and regulate arose “by consent, in the commonwealth.”  (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 4, Sec. 22)

Locke saw the legislative rule of law as the means of establishing what we might call “liberty in practice.”  The commonwealth was to govern itself and to enact those laws necessary for the actual exercise of liberty.  Following Locke, government should only legislate those things the commonwealth feels are necessary to ensure the exercise of liberty.  This idea is central to any notion of “liberalism” no matter where one stands on the political spectrum–on the conservation or the liberal, on the right or on the left. (Note “liberalism” is not synonymous with being a liberal in the modern political sense.)

The political rub comes when we try to answer at least these two questions:

  1. What things or social conditions are necessary for “liberty in practice?”
  2. What role should government (at any level) have in helping to create the conditions for liberty to be a reality for all members of a society?

Does government have a role in ensuring that people have decent nutrition, are not dying of disease, going bankrupt paying for the necessities of life,or held prisoners in the own neighborhoods by crime and overwhelming poverty. What role, if any, should government have in ensuring that children learn to read and that their are viable pathways for social advancement?  What role should government have in improving public health, public education and public safety.  Certainly, the answer to these questions is not no role.

Another key insight of Locke’s may help us to arbitrate some of these questions.  For Locke human beings were essentially social.  Yes, they were individuals with individual hopes and dreams but the individual did not exist outside of the context of society and a multiple series of relationships with others upon whom humans depend and who depend onthem.  Life is therefore lived in society in which we are all responsible to and for one another.  That for Locke was the natural state of affairs. The words of one of the greatest of the metaphysical poets, John Donne, were, no doubt, well know to him.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Put another and less poetic way:  you are you and I am me but we are all inescapably and quite naturally in this life together.

Getting Real Bang for the Buck?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Take a look at the graphic below for a sad commentary on National priorities. While we think about cutting early education programs, lunch programs, investments in research and infrastructure, retirement programs, medicare and the list goes on and on, we spend vast sums on what President Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.”  Does anything seem “out of wack” to you?

bang for your buck

Attribution:  FaceBook page “I Love F…ing Science.”

And Inequality for All?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Yesterday morning a conservative/libertarian friend of mine posted the following quote from F.A. Hayek on his Facebook page.  His post got me thinking about the notions of equality and inequality in US society and how some misguided notions about equality may in fact be major contributors to the ever widening income and political gaps of recent years.


In this quote Professor Hayek is clearly playing with the words “equally” and “equal” and  suggesting that while it is possible to treat everyone the same way (equally) it is not really possible to actually make then the same (equal).  On the surface, this seems like an innocent enough and quite accurate claim.  Human beings come in all sizes, shapes, colors, degrees of athletic prowess and levels of intelligence and it is not possible or even desirable to make them all the same by any natural, governmental or miraculous means.

Hayek is not arguing against the possibility of homogenizing the human race.  He is rather making a point about economics and saying that the economic system or the market can be arranged to treat everybody equally but that it can not and probably should not seek to equalize the economic outcomes derived by people as they engage the economic system.  He is saying that the in the free market, citizens who are treated equally will have different economic outcomes resulting from the choices they make, they effort they expend and simply the luck of the economic draw.

From a political and economic point of view Hayek is arguing that governmental and economic systems can be created that treat people equally but that the outcomes of this equal treatment are likely to vary considerably and that attempts to equalize these outcomes by redistributive or other means will not only fail in the long run but will also remove the economic incentive to create, innovate, manufacture and otherwise take financial risk.  Hayek, like Milton Friedman and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, believed that those who benefited unequally from relatively unregulated commerce would be guided by “enlightened self-interest” and checked by “market forces” in such a way that, although a degree of economic inequality would exist in society, that inequality would never grow to a point where it became unhealthy for society as a whole.  In fact, this school of economists would argue that some inequality was a kind of requirement for the generation of the capital needed for all to prosper even those who benefited least from these inequities.  In short, the rich could get richer and the poor less poor–a net plus for both groups.

Over time the gaps between different economic strata, if Hayek et al are correct, should remain relatively stable or even shrink somewhat.  Inequality should not grow.  These economists would further argue that  as inequality diminishes or remains relatively stable, via the natural mechanisms of market forces and enlightened self-interest, more people, through hard work and perseverance, would be able to move upward from one economic strata to another or at a minimum not take a precipitous slide down the economic ladder.

Following this line of thinking, we are supposed to conclude that although free market capitalism is not a perfect system in the sense of benefiting all equally, it is the best and most efficient alternative available and that attempts to engineer more equitable outcomes by the imposition of government regulations, procedures, tax policies and social programs will only have deleterious affects on both the self-correcting and economically animating forces of that free market.

The line of thinking I have been summarizing is the line of thinking that under-girds the seemingly self-evident quotation from Hayek posted by my friend who is, somewhat wryly, suggesting that there is something foolish and naive about any view that suggests that it is possible for a society to structure itself to achieve greater economic equality without at the same time sentencing itself to an overall economic decline.

However, the data of the last thirty years which corresponds with an easing of governmental regulation on the free market has not produced  a diminishment or stabilization of income inequality but rather the opposite.  The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting relatively poorer.

inequality 2

A recent survey of Americans’ perception of how wealth is distributed in the US reveals just how off the mark many people’s perception of the situation is.


This trend in disparity should prompt us to question the economic arguments of Hayek, Friedman and Greenspan.  The gap between rich and poor is growing and this growth in wealth at the top is not lifting the entire economy. Rather we have only recently recovered from a disastrous recession and are only improving at a modest rate. The free market failed to self-regulate and enlightened self-interest seems not to have shed very much real light on our economic circumstances at all.  Rapacious greed seems to have taken over from enlightenment and eaten away at our sense of interdependence and social solidarity. As the economic gaps widen, a kind of every person for themselves attitude overtakes many, political polarization increases and a cynical darkness covers the land.

I would therefore like to co-opt and alter Hayek’s sentiments quoted above:

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally, attempting to make them equal and allowing economic inequality to increase to the point where it fragments the fabric of civil society.

What is Evolution? Several Great Short Videos

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Here is a very nice little video that in less than nine minutes provides a wonderfully accessible introduction to the concept of evolution.  Young science students might find in particularly helpful.  It’s short, presents the consensus view and my be useful even for adults for whom the term “evolution” has unnecessarily sinister connotations.

Here are two others that go on to talk about “genes” & “DNA.”  Both are directly to the point and helpful for anyone new to either concept.

Thanks to a great site called Stated Clearly.  Hope they create a lot more of these.

The Grammar of Meaning

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2We all learned in grade school that nouns were words that referred to or named a person, place or thing.  Verbs were the action words or the words which expressed a state of being.  On the surface, this distinction seemed both clear and straightforward.  For many, however, the distinction was muddied a bit when we were introduced to the notion of the gerund:  a verb used as a noun; e.g. “Swimming is good exercise.”  As a gerund, the present participle of the verb “to swim” had morphed into the name of an activity and as the name of something it became a fixed notion and lost some of its sense of action. In its journey from “swimming” the verb to “swimming” the noun, some of the sense that “swimming” was something a person did rather than some sort of “it” to be talked or written about receded into the background.  Actually swimming requires no talking or writing (which, by the way, are also two things which we do).

The gerund is absolutely essential for any sort of conversation that refers to human action or anything else that happens for that matter.  Most of the time, this switch from action word to noun and back again is a good and helpful thing but at other times the loss of actual action in the noun form can lead to fundamental misunderstandings of some of life’s most important issues.  Consider, for example, the difference between “making a living” and actually “living.”  We have all heard sentences where both senses of the word “living” might even be implied at the same time;e.g., “He’s just doing it to make a living.”  (Read: he’s making a living but is not fully living.)  Similar observations might also be made about words like “loving”  or “dreaming” and what is lost when they become gerunds.

In this short, essay I’d like to suggest that the gerund “meaning” is one of those terms whose journey from verb to noun is fraught with dangers especially when placed in a phrase like, “the meaning of life.”  This very simple phrase expresses something like:  “meaning” is a something with specific content and that this content is something a person does or does not apprehend.  Those who apprehend this content are thought of as knowing some specific information or facts about life’s meaning–they posses the gnosis.   “Meaning” the gerund (noun) is a something and as such can be present or absent by varying degrees.  “Meaning” now has its own hypostasis through a process of grammatical reification.

The verb “to mean” is usually defined as the act of intending to convey a particular notion or to signify something.  As a verb it is something we DO rather than something which IS.  We intend to convey a notion or feeling to others or even to our selves.  If I were to say that I was “meaning,” I would be saying that I was in the process of intending to convey or signify this or that.

If we forget that words, like “meaning” not only have verbal roots but are themselves present participles, we run the risk of seeing them like any other noun and as such a word which denotes specific content.  This is the mental trick we do when we pose a question like, “What is the meaning of life?”.  Those of us particularly taken with this question can easily begin a search for “the meaning” as if that “meaning” were an object. 

In losing a sense that “meaning” is a gerund and no simple common noun, we no longer apprehend that “meaning” is first and foremost a word which signifies the human act of intending to convey or signify.  “Meaning” is first something that we humans do and only secondarily a body of knowledge we come to discover.  It is not just around the corner like the long lost Holy Grail whose discovery will save us from meaninglessness.  Rather it is the single and shared act of our intending through the choices we make and the action we take. “Meaning” in this sense is to be made not discovered.

The meaning of life is the act of our intending–no more and certainly no less than that. The meaning of life is our act of intending what we do in our engagement with the world around us.  It is the intentional choices we make and act upon in both in life’s good times and most hopeless moments. The way to meaning is to act with intention and not to know with certitude.  Herein lies our existential challenge and our existential responsibility.

Within the Bounds of Nature?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Are we human beings part of nature or separate from it in some unique way?  While this may sound a rather abstract question, the answer to it has significant implications for moral reasoning.  We have all heard acts decried and labeled as immoral because they were “unnatural.”  In the current debate on genetic engineering and biological manufacturing, opposition to forays into these areas are often protested on the grounds of inappropriate (unnatural) interference with the processes of nature. Opponents of everything from same-sex marriage, to stem cell research, to cloning and beyond,  are repelled by what they regard as the unnaturalness of it all.  They warn us aphoristically not to “mess with Mother Nature.”

For many, whether theists or secular humanists, any hint that an act is unnatural is synonymous with saying that it is immoral–or at least of highly questionable moral status.  Therefore, it makes a great deal of difference what we include in our conception of what is within and without the bounds of nature (or the natural).

Certainly, naturalness, or the lack thereof, is only one of the many ways to think about morality; but, it is a very common one and one often turned to in order arouse public sentiment either for or against a certain course of scientific inquiry or social practice.

My thesis is a simple but, I think, important one:  everything which exists on this planet or anywhere else in the cosmos is a part of nature.  Put another way, nature is that which is and what “goes on” in nature consists entirely of natural processes or occurrences.

The birth of a cell

The birth of a cell

Human beings are therefore part of nature and the things that human beings do and think are also part of that nature.  For example, the use of the human mind to address problems of life and human health is an entirely natural thing.  Thinking, creating, building, fixing, adapting etc. etc. are entirely natural things as are cell division, natural selection, mutation, volcanic eruptions and beavers building dams.

That said morality is still of the highest importance.  Human acts can still be judged moral and immoral, prudent and imprudent as well as beneficial or harmful but they can not and consequently should not be judged on the basis of whether they are natural or not:  there is nothing which is or happens which is not natural.

The question of needing to distinguish the natural from the unnatural arises from the supposition or belief that the natural is a product of a force outside of the natural known as the supernatural and particularly the work of a divine entity existing in a dimension outside of nature.  The supernatural, it is argued, designed and created nature and its processes.  The supernatural, in this conception, is interested in its creation conforming to the original design and set of processes.

The whole notion of something being unnatural presupposes a supernatural which has defined what falls within the bounds of nature.  Actions that violate the original supernatural design are unnatural because they violate the supernatural designer’s intent and are ipso facto immoral.

This view of supernatural intentional creation has, in the Western Tradition, normally also made the claim that human beings have a foot, so to speak, in both the supernatural and natural domains.  The Christian tradition even claims that the supernatural created human beings in its own “image and likeness” and that there is a component of a human being called the soul which is spiritual and in that sense supernatural–outside of nature and both immortal and incorporeal.

Further, in this view, the supernatural creator has retained certain prerogatives vis-a-vis the creation.  For example, the actual creation of life and maintaining the basic integrity of the original design are the prerogative of the supernatural alone. Human beings, although “ensouled,” are not to violate these fundamental rules without dire consequences for themselves and the creation as a whole.  They should not do anything “unnatural;” i.e., arrogate to themselves any supernatural prerogatives.  In this way, the unnatural and the immoral have become almost covalent terms in the popular mind.

Additionally, only humans seem to be capable of doing unnatural acts.  One never hears of cats, birds, gold fish, or bacteria performing unnatural acts.  We assume that since they are part of nature what they do is simply natural and neither moral or immoral–what ethicists sometimes call pre-moral.  Natural organisms are thought to follow their instincts and not really exercise any choice other than  pragmatic ones like which prey to attack.  We would never imagine a non-human animal doing or even intending to do anything like Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did— that would be unnatural.

At this point, it should be clear that the existence of the unnatural presupposes the existence of the supernatural.  Without the supernatural, all is natural including what we experience as freedom, curiosity, love, hope and creativity.  With the supernatural, freedom is curtailed, curiosity limited and creativity shackled.  With the supernatural, the “image and likeness” to the supernatural claimed for humans is no longer remotely perceptible as humans are reduced to rule keepers or rule breakers–left in a place of persistent delinquency.

Most dictionaries define the supernatural something like: a proposed force outside of nature and beyond scientific understanding.  In that sense, the existence of the supernatural is a matter of faith: i.e., a strong belief grounded in spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

Personally, I would prefer not to be left in a state of persistent delinquency grounded on an idea (the supernatural) for which there is not and cannot be any evidence.  I would rather embrace and be embraced by what is and can be known to be and like the crew of the Starship Enterprise “boldly (and I might add prudently) go where no person has gone before.”  That is what comes naturally to me.110706Enterprise01